Amendment Fail

February 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

I see all sorts of ways that people try to amend their pleadings. Some simply file amended pleadings without leave of court, whether within or without time for responsive pleadings. Some get a court order to amend and do so. I have seen some get a court order and never file an amended pleading. A few even comply strictly with the rule.

The COA decision in Estate of Flowers: Flowers v. Estate of Flowers, Flowers and Lang, decided January 2, 2018, involved a motion for leave to amend pleadings following a R12(b)(6) dismissal, and the chancellor’s refusal to allow the amendment. The COA affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote for the court:

 ¶59. Finally, Claire and Jane appeal the denial of Claire’s motion for leave to admit her amended petition for compensatory and punitive damages. Claire and Jane argue that leave to amend should have been granted because none of the respondents asserted that they would
be prejudiced if the motion were granted.

¶60. In her amended petition, Claire sought to include claims against the various attorneys involved in the representation of Richard’s estate, Brenda’s estate, and the guardianship of D.A. At a hearing on Claire’s motion, the chancellor made a bench ruling wherein he granted Oakes’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss Claire’s petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The chancellor also granted Oakes’s and the Meltons’ (among others) motions to strike themselves as defendants in the cause due to Claire’s failure to obtain leave from the court under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 21 to add them.

¶61. As stated, in response to the chancellor’s order of dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), on February 16, 2016, Claire filed a motion for leave to amend her petition for compensatory and punitive damages, and her amended petition for compensatory and punitive damages in accordance with Rule 15(a). In her motion, Claire stated that she “specifically requests that she be allowed to amend those portions of the complaints by which the court ruled were insufficient at stating a claim for relief. Those portions include stating fraud and negligence per se with the correct specificity.”

¶62. The defendants listed in Claire’s petition joined Oakes’s motion requesting that Claire’s motion for leave to amend be denied. The defendants argued that Claire failed to “attach a proposed amended petition that would permit the chancellor to determine whether justice requires that leave to amend be granted” and that the parties were “dismissed as [respondents] . . . as a result of [Claire’s] failure to obtain leave of court to add [them] as part[ies].”

¶63. We review the denial of a motion to amend for abuse of discretion. Crater v. Bank of New York Mellon, 203 So. 3d 16, 19 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). We will affirm the chancellor’s decision “unless the discretion he used is found to be arbitrary and clearly erroneous.” Breeden v. Buchanan, 164 So. 3d 1057, 1064 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (quoting Poole ex rel. Poole v. Avara, 908 So. 2d 716, 721 (¶8) (Miss. 2005)).

¶64. Rule 15(a) provides as follows:

On sustaining a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), . . . leave to amend shall be granted when justice so requires upon conditions and within time as determined by the court, provided matters outside the pleadings are not presented at the hearing on the motion.

Regarding Rule 15 amendments to pleadings, the supreme court has held as follows:

While proposed amendments have been liberally permitted throughout Mississippi legal history and are encouraged under Rule 15[,] a party cannot fail to convey the subject matter of the proposed amendment to the trial judge and if they do so fail, no error can be predicated on the judge’s failure to allow the amendment.

Parker v. Miss. Game & Fish Comm’n, 555 So. 2d 725, 730-31 (Miss. 1989). Additionally, in Price v. Price, 430 So. 2d 848, 849 (Miss. 1983) (citing Watts v. Patton, 66 Miss. 54, 5 So. 628 (1888)), the supreme court explained that a chancellor’s refusal to allow the amendment of a pleading cannot be reviewed on appeal where the record fails to show the proposed amendment.

¶65. In his order denying Claire’s motion for leave to amend in accordance with Rule 15(a), the chancellor explained the following: “[T]he motion filed by [Claire] fails to state how she would amend her prior pleadings or fails to attach a proposed amended pleading which would allow the court to determine whether justice required that she be given leave to file amended pleadings[.]” The record reflects that the motion to amend filed by Claire contained only bare allegations and contained no facts or actions from which to determine the existence of a cause of action. See also M.R.C.P. 9(b) (providing that fraud must be pled with specificity); Faul v. Perlman, 104 So. 3d 148, 156 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012)
(discussing the elements a plaintiff must show to establish negligence per se). The record reflects that the chancellor thus properly found that Claire failed to state a basis for amending her pleadings. See Parker, 555 So. 2d at 730-31.

¶66. Additionally, with respect to a claim of fraud, we recognize the following guidance:

[T]he facts on which the charge of fraud is predicated must be specifically stated with full definiteness of detail. No general averment of a fraudulent course of business, and no bare statement of a corrupt design on the part of the defendant, is sufficient. The acts themselves which are claimed to be fraudulent must be clearly set out. It must further appear by definite averment in what manner the fraudulent acts wrought injury to the complainant. Fraud cannot be inferred, but must be distinctly charged, and with such fullness and precision that a court of chancery would be enabled to grant full and complete relief and redress should the bill of complaint be taken as confessed.

Weir v. Jones, 84 Miss. 602, 36 So. 533, 534 (1904). Claire’s failure to provide a basis for amending her pleadings and her failure to plead fraud and negligence with the required specificity prevented the chancellor from determining whether Claire had a cause of action or just allegations without facts.

¶67. Furthermore, as previously stated, the record also shows that Oakes, Stuckey, Melton Jr., and Melton III were dismissed from the litigation as defendants because Claire failed to obtain leave of court before she added the attorneys as parties as required by Rule 21. Claire filed no appeal of the dismissal of the attorneys as parties. In Crater, 203 So. 3d at 21 (¶16), this Court addressed a Rule 15(a) motion to amend filed against a nonparty:

Because the motion to amend asserted claims only against a nonparty, devoid of any factual allegation, after the statute of limitations had run, and sought to exercise a statutory right that does not exist, the claims raised by [the petitioner] in her amended complaint were futile. Because the amendment was futile, the chancery court was not required to grant leave for the amendment. Therefore, the chancery judge did not abuse his discretion in ruling on the motion to dismiss prior to ruling on [the petitioner’s] motion to amend.

¶68. Accordingly, we find no abuse of discretion in the chancellor’s denial of Claire’s motion to amend.

Some afterthoughts:

  • Of course, any amended pleading must comply with R15 in order to do its job. My suggestion is to read the rule. I’ll bet most of you will be surprised at how many times you’ve failed to do it right.
  • When leave of court to amend is required, you must attach a copy of your proposed pleading so that the court can determine whether the motion should be granted. That’s especially true, as this case points out, where you are seeking to plead matters such as fraud that require specific allegations.
  • If you do not attach a copy of a proposed pleading and the judge overrules your motion to amend, you can’t complain about it on appeal.
  • When your pleadings are dismissed for failure to state a claim, don’t assume that you have the automatic right to amend. File a motion and attach your proposed pleading. Then, if the judge grants your motion, file the proposed pleading.
  • Again: if the judge grants your motion to amend, remember to file the pleading.
  • R21 requires a court order to add parties. In this case, the plaintiffs merely added parties without a court order, which allowed those parties to escape on a motion to dismiss, which snagged the plaintiffs on the statute of limitations (SOL).
  • SOL is seldom fatal in chancery matters, but that’s no reason not to amend and join parties per the rules.

False Pleadings

January 23, 2018 § 2 Comments

In case you hadn’t noticed, MRCP 11(a) requires every pleading to be signed by one of the attorneys of record. But it doesn’t stop there. It goes on to say that …

“The signature of an attorney constitutes a certificate that the attorney has read the pleading or motion; that to the best of the attorney’s knowledge, information, and belief there is good ground to support it; and that it is not interposed for delay.”

R11(b) provides sanctions for non-compliance.

The Advisory Committee Note says that, “Good faith and professional responsibility are the bases of Rule 11.” And it points to R8 pertaining to general denials, which is expressly subject to R11, “meaning only when counsel can in good faith fairly deny all the averments in the adverse pleading should he do so.”

So how do the following comport with R11?

  • Attorney prepares and files an affidavit of diligent inquiry stating that the affiant is the sole heir of the decedent. The attorney is relying solely on the word of the affiant-client. Turns out that the affiant has two sisters in another state.
  • Attorney files an affidavit on behalf of the client taking the client’s word that she looked everywhere for her daughter to take custody of her child, and the daughter is not to be found in Mississippi. A simple Facebook search would have located the daughter in Gulfport.
  • Attorney files a verified application for injunction swearing that efforts have been made to give notice, but that notice should not be required. On inquiry by the judge it is disclosed that counsel has been in discussions about the matter with an attorney representing the opposing party, and that attorney’s office is directly across the street from the courthouse.
  • Attorney signs off on a divorce complaint alleging HCIT and adultery knowing from interviews with the client that there is not enough evidence to support either ground.

If good faith and professional responsibility are the fundamental considerations behind R11, then I think it requires more than taking your client’s word for it and filing pleadings that prove to be wrong. Notice that I said wrong, and not fraudulent. But that’s a thin line.

An Approach to Due Execution of the Will

January 17, 2018 § 2 Comments

The subscribing witness has an important responsibility in connection with execution of the will. The witness’s duty is four-fold:

First, the testator must request them to attest the will [Green v. Pearson, 145 Miss. 23, 110 So. 862, 864 (1927)]; second, they must see the testator sign the will [Matter of Jefferson’s Will, 349 So.3d 1032, 1036 (Miss. 1977)]; third, they must know that the document is the testator’s last will and testament [Estate of Griffith v. Griffith, 20 So.2d 1190, 1194 (Miss. 2010)]; and finally, they must satisfy themselves that the testator is of sound and disposing mind and capable of making a will [Matter of Jefferson’s Will, Id.]. Estate of Holmes, 103 So.3d 1150 at ¶ 10 (Miss. 2012).

I blogged about the concept here.

As the attorney, you have a duty above that of the witnesses to ensure that your client, the testator, is competent to make decisions that result in a valid will.

But how do you do that?

In a recent post on the Expert Institute Blog, a geriatric psychiatrist offered a template for assessing your testator’s testamentary capacity:

 1) Awareness of the situation/communicating a choice:

Can you tell me the purpose of today’s meeting?
What have you decided to do regarding your Will?

2) Factual understanding of the issues:

Can you tell me what a Will is?
Do you know or can you approximate the extent of your estate?
Who in your family may survive you?
Can you tell me in your own words what you would like to happen to your estate after you die?

3) Appreciation of likely consequences:

Do you believe that a Will is necessary? What do you believe would happen if you do not have a Will?
Can you tell me how your Will may affect your family?
How well does this Will represent your wishes?

4) Rational manipulation of information:

How did you reach your decisions when you thought about your Will?
What was important to you in reaching your decision?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of your decision?
Were there other possibilities that you considered but decided against? What were your reasons? What makes Person A a better choice as your heir than Person B?

As the blog states:

As the population ages, lawyers will increasingly need to detect intact versus impaired decision-making capacities. Lawyers can directly screen for decisional capacity … . In so doing, they rely on more than simple impressions of their clients, or on family members’ subjective, at times conflicted, views. Clients can mask their deficits and family members can misjudge the severity of those deficits, or be motivated by self-interest. Primary care physicians are often asked to determine competency, but they may not be trained to assess cognition, and their opinions may lack validity. This explains why physician competency evaluations often disagree. Unless a client’s decision-making capacities are specifically assessed, the presence or absence of those capacities cannot be presumed.

If you will conduct this inquiry in the presence of the subscribing witnesses, you can ensure that they can competently testify later if necessary about the testator’s testamentary capacity.

I suggest you make this template a form that you keep with the client’s file, including a dated note that it was discussed with the client, and including any observations. Also have the subscribing witnesses sign it. That could prove to be an invaluable aid in the event of a will contest.

Understanding the MEC Privacy Requirements

January 8, 2018 § 2 Comments

Section 9(A) of the MEC administrative procedures imposes a duty to protect sensitive information of parties and children in filings with the court. Social Security numbers, names of minor children, dates of birth, and financial account numbers are prohibited and must be redacted. Attorneys are directed to use caution with personal identifying numbers (e.g., driver’s license numbers), medical records, employment history, individual financial information, and proprietary or trade-secret information.

There are exceptions, however, set out in Section 9(B). It states:

The redaction requirement shall not apply to the following:

  1. The record of an administrative or agency proceeding.
  2. The record of a court or tribunal, if that record was not subject to the redaction requirement when originally filed. See Section 5(D) for a listing of restricted access cases.
  3. Documents filed under seal.
  4. Documents filed as Restricted Access if the private information is necessary and relevant to the case. See Section 5(D) for listing of restricted access cases.

Section 5(D) designates certain cases as “Restricted Access” (RA), meaning that persons other than the attorneys of record and clerks will only be able to view remotely the case’s docket page; as with other unsealed cases, the public may view documents on file in RA cases at the terminal in the clerk’s office.

Cases designated as RA include:

Debt Collection; Garnishment; Replevin; Child Custody/Visitation; Child Support; Divorce, both fault and irreconcilable differences; Modification; Paternity; Termination of Parental Rights; Birth Certificate Correction; Conservatorship; Guardianship; Minor’s Settlement; Protection from Domestic Abuse Law.

Note that adoption is not listed. That’s because adoptions are under seal, and so are exempted under 9(B)(3), above.

Also not listed are estates. That means that the redaction requirements do, indeed, apply to them.

Even if your case is not designated in the rule as an RA case, you may still move the court to restrict a document or the entire case for good cause, per Section 5(D)(3).

Just because your case falls in an RA category does not mean that can or should ignore your client’s right to privacy. Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, passwords, and personal identifying numbers should always be scrubbed from documents filed with the court, exchanged in discovery, and introduced into evidence, unless your client has specifically authorized you to release that specific information.

And remember that MRCP 5.1 extends the MEC privacy rules to districts using non-MEC electronic filing.

Speak Up and Be Heard

November 22, 2017 § 3 Comments

You older lawyers can take a break from the blog with this post. You, for the most part, don’t suffer from the particular malady I am about to describe. You younger lawyers need to pay heed.

Simply put: if you want the judge to grant your client some kind of relief, you must make sure that the judge hears what both you and your client are saying. I hope I said that loud enough.

Too often I have to urge younger lawyers and their clients to speak up. Projecting your voice so as to be heard in all corners of a courtroom is vastly different from talking on your cellphone. Many courthouses, particularly the older ones, provide no amplification equipment, and acoustic efficiency was not a consideration when designing courtrooms back in days of yore. That’s because lawyers and orators in general knew, understood, and practiced the simple art of projecting their voices.

I met Dean Duncan of the OM Law School recently, and was tempted to ask whether some unamplified speech class could be introduced into the curriculum to impress on lawyers-to-be the importance of making themselves heard. I let it pass and decided to grumble about it here.

One consideration you need to bear in mind is that hearing often does not improve with age. If you look up to the bench and see a chancellor with gray hair, you should assume that he or she spent too much time in college listening to the Rolling Stones through headphones with full volume. Oops, I may be getting too autobiographical here.

Another consideration is that even if you learn to project, it does little good if the judge can’t hear your client. When you prepare your client and key witnesses for trial (and a few of you do that), impress on them the vital importance of speaking up. In the courtroom encourage your witnesses to speak up.

Speak up and be heard.

Should Mississippi Have a Class-Action Rule? Your Comments are Invited

November 7, 2017 § 5 Comments

The MSSC has tasked the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Civil Rules to study whether Mississippi should adopt a procedural rule allowing class actions. The committee is expected to recommend whether or not to do so, and, if the answer is positive, to propose how such a rule would operate.

The impetus for the referral comes from a motion filed with the court by Attorney Richard T, “Flip” Phillips to adopt Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

To refresh your recollection, when the MRCP was adopted in 1982, Rule 23 was omitted. Up until then, equitable principles allowed consolidation of actions into something resembling class actions in chancery. The MRCP put an end to that, and some used Mississippi’s liberal joinder laws to fashion mass litigation that proved to be nightmarish in implementation. The MSSC and venue legislation put the kibosh on that, and so we are left with no tools for anything resembling class actions.

Both sides on the issue point out that Mississippi is the only state that does not have any form of state-court class action. Virginia allows class action in only extremely limited circumstances. All other states have rules allowing class actions.

The committee is gathering information and hopes to be in a position to make a recommendation by the spring of next year.

What do you think? Should Mississippi have a rule allowing class actions? Your comments are invited and will be shared with the advisory committee.

Butting In

September 25, 2017 § 1 Comment

The Smiths, paternal grandparents of 3-year-old Zach, want to hire you to get custody of of him from his parents, who have been jailed over some meth charges. The Smiths just discovered that the Johnsons, the maternal grandparents, have already filed an action in chancery court to do that very thing, and the case is set for hearing in a week. What to do?

Your first thought is to file a counterclaim for the Smiths, seeking custody. But, after re-reading R13, you realize that counterclaims are between parties, and the Smiths are not parties.

You think then that maybe you should simply file a separate suit and ask the chancellor to consolidate them. That sounds kind of cumbersome, and leaves you and your clients out of the loop as to what is going on in the Johnsons’ original suit unless and until consolidation is granted.

Frustrated and on the verge of tears, wondering why you ever though law school was a good idea in the first place, you pace the floor of your office until an intern says, “Why don’t you file to intervene via Rule 24?” You scoff and dismiss the intern to go get the mail … and then you look at R24.

Voila! Intervention. It’s right there in the MRCP!

The first step in intervention is to file a motion to intervene in the action. The rule requires a “timely application.” The motion must state the grounds for the motion and must be accompanied by a proposed pleading setting forth the claim or defenses for which the intervention is sought.

Any party may intervene in an action:

  1. By right when a statute confers an unconditional right to intervene. So, obviously, the statutory right would be the ground for the motion; or
  2. By right when the applicant claims an interest in the subject matter of the suit and his ability to protect that interest may be impaired, unless existing parties can adequately protect that interest; or
  3. By permission when a statute confers a conditional right to intervene; or
  4. By permission when an applicant’ claim or defense and the main action have common questions of fact or law.

It is within the court’s discretion whether to allow the intervention. The court must consider whether the intervention will unduly delay or prejudice the rights of the original parties.

The Advisory Committee Notes cite authority to the effect that: (1) if one of the criteria for intervention by right are met, and there is a timely application, the court should grant intervention; (2) even if one or more of the criteria for permissive intervention are met, it is discretionary with the court whether to grant it; (3) any application to intervene must be timely, and the note cites the criteria the court must consider to determine timeliness; and (4) the determination of timeliness is in the trial court’s discretion and will not be overturned absent abuse of discretion.

Bottom line: You can’t just leap into the middle of an ongoing lawsuit without following R24.

Dismissal with Bite

August 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

Leesa McCharen was divorced from Judson Allred, III, in 1994. In 2012, Leesa sued Judson for arrearages in medical insurance premiums, private school and private college tuition, and various other claims, totalling more than $530,000. Her two children were 24 and 27 years old, respectively, at the time of her suit.

A year of frenzied litigation ensued, in the course of which Leesa’s claims shrunk to around $136,000. Leesa’s last pleading was filed August 12, 2013. On October 1, 2013, Judson filed a motion to dismiss for failure to join the two daughters as necessary parties, and the court apparently ordered Leesa to join them, although no order was entered. Nothing further happened of record, until …

On June 1, 2015, the chancery clerk issued a R41(d) notice. No response from Leesa. The court dismissed the case by order entered July 9, 2015.

On August 7, 2015, Leesa filed a motion to reinstate the case. There were some fruitless negotiations between attorneys about agreeing to a reinstatement. Nothing else transpired until …

February 25, 2016. On that date, the chancellor held a hearing at which Judson did not appear. Leesa argued that the clerk had mis-styled the case, causing her failure to react. The chancellor reinstated the case. Then, on April 28, 2016, Judson discovered the reinstatement when he was served with discovery requests in the revenant case. He responded with a motion to set aside the order. On May 17, 2016, in a proceeding that the chancellor deemed to be a R60 motion, he dismissed Leesa’s case without prejudice.

In the case of McCharen v. Allred, handed down August 1, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Fair wrote for the unanimous court:

¶8. The trial court has the inherent authority to dismiss an action for lack of prosecution. Wallace v. Jones, 572 So. 2d 371, 375 (Miss. 1990). We apply a substantial evidence/manifest error standard of review to the trial court’s grant or denial of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 41 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Ill. Cent. R.R. v. Moore, 994 So. 2d 723, 733 (¶30) (Miss. 2008). Also, we will not reverse the trial court’s denial of relief from judgment pursuant to Rule 60 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure unless the trial court has abused its discretion. Harrison v. McMillan, 828 So. 2d 756, 773 (¶51) (Miss. 2002).

DISCUSSION

¶9. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(d)(1) states that the “case will be dismissed by the court for want of prosecution unless within thirty days following said mailing [notifying the attorneys the case will be dismissed], action of record is taken or an application in writing is made to the court and good cause shown why it should be continued as a pending case.” Leesa left her case dormant for almost two years. As a result, the clerk filed a motion to dismiss on June 1, 2015. Leesa did nothing. Rule 41(d)(1) also states that “[i]f action of record is not taken or good cause is not shown, the court shall dismiss each such case without prejudice.” M.R.C.P. 41(d)(1) (emphasis added). So on July 9, 2015, the court entered an order to that effect. Twenty-nine days later, Leesa filed a motion to reinstate the case.

¶10. The court originally granted Leesa’s motion, presumably because neither Judson nor his counsel was present at the February 2016 hearing. But after listening to Judson’s argument at the May 2016 hearing, the chancellor found no good cause had been shown and dismissed the case without prejudice under Rule 60(b)(6). In doing so, he addressed Leesa’s claim that she did not recognize the motion to dismiss, styled “Moore v. Crim”:

[Leesa’s argument that the clerk failed] to properly docket [the case] is a red herring. It’s pretty much clearly docketed as this case . . . . (T)he clerk may have reversed the order of the names, but, goodness gracious, the last name “Allred” leads in both reference to plaintiff and defendant, so I don’t think you can possibly make that argument with a straight face.

¶11. On appeal, Leesa abandons her sole argument from the trial court and instead argues that: (1) prior to dismissal, the statute of limitations of Leesa’s claim had expired; and (2) Judson delayed litigation with frivolous motions. It is well established that this Court will not consider issues raised for the first time on appeal. Fowler v. White, 85 So. 3d 287, 293 (¶21) (Miss. 2012). Thus, we decline to address Leesa’s current arguments.

¶12. Rule 60(b)(6) allows a judge the opportunity to relieve a party from a final judgment for any justifiable reason. M.R.C.P. 60(b)(6). After careful review of the record, we find the chancellor acted within his discretion in finding that Leesa failed to show any compelling reason for her delay in prosecution. Accordingly, we affirm the chancellor’s order setting aside the order reinstating the case.

Pretty straightforward, even though the procedural path was convoluted.

When you receive a 41(d) notice, you need to file something of record that will have the effect of advancing the case on the docket. A previous post about what action you need to take is at this link. A letter to the clerk will not do the job. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Some chancellors (I included) take the position that once the case is dismissed, it can not be “reinstated;” the only possibility for revival being a timely-filed R60 motion, which requires that you meet its criteria.

Making the Cap Fit

March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

Chancery courts can award punitive damages. It doesn’t happen every day, and it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. When they do award punitive damages, chancery courts are as bound as other courts by MCA 11-1-65(1)(a), which imposes a cap of 2% of the defendant’s net worth for defendants with net worth of $50 million or less.

The case of Moore v. McDonald, handed down February 7, 2017, the appellants argued that the trial court erred in assessing punitive damages in excess of their claimed net worth. We’ve already posted about this case here, here, and here, because there’s a lot to talk about in it. It’s the property-line dispute in which the Moores had violated a previously affirmed judgment setting the parties’ boundary line. The Moores appealed, and Judge Wilson’s opinion will fill you in on the applicable facts:

¶8. The Moores do not dispute that their conduct was malicious such that an award of punitive damages was appropriate. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-1-65(1)(a). Their only objection is that the punitive award exceeds two percent of their net worth in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-1-65(3). See id. § 11-1-65(3)(a)(vi) (“[N]o award of punitive damages shall exceed . . . [t]wo percent (2%) of the defendant’s net worth for a defendant with a net worth of Fifty Million Dollars ($50,000,000.00) or less.”). On appeal, they argue that the chancellor was required to accept at face value their own representations of their net worth and cap punitive damages at $1,268. However, in the court below, the Moores failed to raise the issue of the statutory cap on punitive damages. The Moores also failed to introduce any reliable evidence of their net worth. Accordingly, they were not entitled to the benefit of the statutory cap on punitive damages.

¶9. On March 20, 2015, at the conclusion of the hearing on the McDonalds’ contempt petition, the chancellor found that an award of $10,000 in punitive damages would be appropriate. After that hearing, the Moores, who had been proceeding pro se, decided to hire a lawyer. At a hearing on May 8, 2015, the Moores’ recently retained counsel argued that the burden was on the McDonalds to prove the Moores’ net worth before the court could award any amount of punitive damages. Indeed, counsel asserted that “[t]he case law is clear” on this point. At the Moores’ request, the chancellor then continued the case to July 7, 2015, for a hearing on attorneys’ fees and the Moores’ net worth for purposes of assessing punitive damages.

¶10. At the July 7 hearing, counsel for the Moores acknowledged that his argument at the prior hearing was mistaken and that proof of net worth is not necessary to support an award of punitive damages. Counsel then argued that either side could offer such evidence, which the court should then consider in assessing punitive damages. However, in all of the proceedings in the chancery court, the Moores never—at any hearing or in any pleading—mentioned the statutory cap on punitive damages or argued that punitive damages must be capped at two percent of their net worth or any other number. “It is a long-established rule in this state that a question not raised in the trial court will not be considered on appeal.” Adams v. Bd. of Sup’rs of Union Cty., 177 Miss. 403, 170 So. 684, 685 (1936). “Moreover, it is not sufficient to simply mention or discuss an issue at a hearing. The rule is that a ‘trial judge cannot be put in error on a matter which was never presented to him for decision.’” City of Hattiesburg v. Precision Constr. LLC, 192 So. 3d 1089, 1093 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quoting Methodist Hosps. of Memphis v. Guardianship of Marsh, 518 So. 2d 1227, 1228 (Miss. 1988)). Accordingly, the Moores waived any argument that the chancellor should have applied the statutory cap.

¶11. Procedural bar notwithstanding, the Moores also failed to present evidence sufficient to require the chancellor to apply the cap. The only evidence that the Moores introduced of their net worth was a Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05 financial statement that they apparently signed on the morning of the hearing. The Moores’ 8.05 statement estimated the value of their home and land as $85,000 with a $22,000 mortgage balance; claimed household goods, furniture, and clothing worth $400; disclosed checking accounts with a combined balance of $325 or less; and listed two vehicles—one worth $5,600 or less with a $5,600 loan, and the other worth $1,500 with an $1,800 loan. The Moores gave a total value of their assets of $0, although the assets listed totaled $63,425.

The court went on to describe: Carolyn Moore’s evasive answers to questions about $17,000 cash on hand and her admission that their 8.05 was inaccurate; the evasive testimony of her husband about false and misleading bankruptcy filings; their failure to offer tax returns or a copy of a loan application they had submitted to a local blank shortly before trial; and the Moores’ smirking and mocking demeanor at trial. The COA concluded:

¶15. The chancellor did not err by reaffirming her $10,000 punitive award. “[P]roof of net worth is not required to award punitive damages. . . . [F]or a defendant to mitigate potential punitive damages, it is his responsibility to present proof of his net worth and financial condition.” Woodkrest Custom Homes Inc. v. Cooper, 108 So. 3d 460, 469 (¶¶41-42) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing C&C Trucking Co. v. Smith, 612 So. 2d 1092, 1102, 1105 (Miss. 1992)); accord Coleman & Coleman Enters., 106 So. 3d at 320 (¶33). Furthermore, the “evidence must be sufficient to enable the trial court to determine the defendant’s current net worth, according to generally accepted accounting principles.” In re Miss. Medicaid Pharm. Average Wholesale Price Litig. (“AWP Litig.”), 190 So. 3d 829, 846 (¶40) (Miss. 2015) (opinion of Chandler, J., joined by Kitchens and King, JJ., affirming). The Moores failed to meet their burden. They presented only one self-serving and admittedly inaccurate document of their own creation. Clearly, they did not present “evidence . . . sufficient to enable the [chancellor] to determine [their] current net worth, according to generally accepted accounting principles.” Id.

Not much more needs to be said. If you want to preserve a point for appeal, it must have been presented to the chancellor in trial or pre-trial in a form suitable for the judge to rule on it, or you have waived it. And the burden is on you to prove net worth so as to apply the punitive damages cap.

 

Waiving Discovery Problems

February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

It happens from time to time, especially in cases that seem to have dragged around for ‘way too long, that the parties appear on the trial date assigned and one attorney launches into a tale of woe about how the other side never answered their interrogatories and requests for production, and now we need a continuance to get those answers or records, or whatever. My solution is below, but what in the world is one supposed to do when confronted by such a woeful situation?

That was the question before the chancellor In Bruenderman v. Bruenderman, a COA case decided January 10, 2017.

In that case, Anna Bruenderman was awarded custody of the parties’ minor child. Ty Bruenderman appealed, arguing that, if only he had been able to get Anna’s medical records into evidence, he would have prevailed, and it was error for the trial judge not to have ordered their production.

The COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:

¶14. Ty asserts he should have been granted access to Anna’s psychiatric records because they are not privileged under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 503.

¶15. Rule 503 states that there is a privilege between patient and psychotherapist; however, Rule 503(d)(4) states that the privilege does not apply to communications—including records—regarding a party’s physical, mental, or emotional health or drug or alcohol condition when relevant to child custody, visitation, adoption, or termination of parental rights. The comments to the rule state that some factors the court should consider when evaluating such evidence under Rule 503 include whether: (1) the treatment was recent enough to be relevant; (2) substantive independent evidence of serious impairment exists; (3) sufficient evidence is unavailable elsewhere; (4) court-ordered evaluations are an inadequate substitute; and (5) given the severity of the alleged disorder, communications made in the course of treatment are likely to be relevant. M.R.E. 503 cmt.

¶16. Here, Ty subpoenaed Anna’s psychiatrist for a deposition one week prior to trial and did not request a continuance to allow him time to attempt to obtain those records. Though the chancery court ruled that Ty could pursue Anna’s records, he did not, nor did Ty ever move to compel the production of those records. It is well established that the burden is on the movant to request a continuance to pursue discovery matters, and failure to do so constitutes waiver. Ford Motor Co. v. Tennin, 960 So. 2d 379, 394-95 (¶54) (Miss. 2007); see also generally URCCC 4.04; M.R.C.P. 37.

[Note: the reference to URCCC is to the circuit and county court rules. The applicable Uniform Chancery Court Rule (UCCR) is 1.10]

¶17. The chancellor noted that there was no testimony of any major mental or physical problems of either party nor any evidence showing that discovery of any of Anna’s psychiatric records would be relevant to the chancery court’s custody analysis. The chancellor found that, based on what was before him, Anna’s counseling had more to do with the divorce than any underlying issue affecting her ability to properly care for her and Ty’s child. Thus, we find this issue is without merit.

So, the deal is that, yes, you can obtain the records under MRE 503, but unless someone voluntarily hands them to you, which is rare in this HIPAA era, you will have to bring the matter before the judge and show: the records’ recency and relevance; that there is substantive independent evidence of the condition; unavailability of this evidence through another source; court-ordered evaluations will not do the job; and communications between doctor and patient are likely to be relevant in the circumstances. AND you must do all that timely, or you have waived your right to complain about it.

In other words, as with all things discovery, you must timely file to compel, and timely follow up if necessary, or you will have waived the issue.

There are seldom last-minute motions to continue for discovery problems in my court because you can not get a date for trial on the merits unless and until you certify in blood that all discovery issues have been resolved, all discovery is completed, and the matter is ready for trial (Okay, I’m exaggerating about the blood part, but not by much).

The chancellor mus be fair, but that means fair to both sides. When you show up unprepared to try your case, expecting that the judge will congenially grant your request for a continuance, you are taking a big chance. If the motion is even in the slightest unfair to the other side, you will be overruled and told to tee it up.

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